So a couple of weeks ago, I was talking about how Americans’ (particularly white Americans’) misguided definition of ‘terrorism’ and our resistance to calling mass shooters ‘terrorists’ negatively influences our understanding of how global terrorism actually works, in particular that for groups claiming an Islamic narrative or theology for their violence, like al-Qaeda and ISIS, we don’t seem to understand that many if not the majority of their victims are Muslims, and that we need to act to protect these communities far more than we need to be concerned with our own safety.
I came across an article that I think well illustrates another aspect of this same problem, namely that our casual association of Islam with terrorism (and resulting misunderstanding that thousands of Muslims worldwide are daily the victims of terrorism) also denies the victims their own voice and narrative of events, so that we have to go to some weird sources to serve as examples of victims. Thus – the silent monkey victims of the war on terror.
Disclaimer: let me just say at the outset that I do not intend to discuss the pros and cons of animal testing, nor do I wish to have discussions about this in the comments. I know this is an issue about which many people feel strongly, but I want to stay focused on the larger issue that we’re devoting column inches (albeit digital ones) to discussing the effects of the war on terror on monkeys.
Privilege can be demonstrated in a number of ways, but one of the most powerful aspects of privilege is innate authority. The more vectors of privilege you possess, the more likely other people are to just believe you automatically. This has been well-demonstrated academically in how people perceive women’s and men’s contributions to mixed-gender discussions or by how white culture systematically disadvantages African-American Vernacular English to make black people sound unreliable and unrelatable. It’s also easy to find anecdotal examples in nearly any news story involving women, queer people, or people of color, for example in this utterly ridiculous story where police officers refused to believe an adult black man, until his story was corroborated by a four-year-old white girl. Although all of the news story about this event have focused on the little girl as a ‘junior sleuth’ or a ‘pint-size detective,’ really the big story should be that police officers accepted the witness statement of a four-year old girl, but not that of an adult man. When prejudice leads us to trust people who believe in fairies and Santa Claus more than grown adults, we need to accept that we’ve taken a wrong turn.
This privilege of believability, and its opposing silencing of victims, is essentially a form of dehumanization. It reduces those who do not possess privilege to nonhuman entities, whose experiences, perceptions, and opinions are not relatable or deserving of empathy like other humans. It can also have tremendous impact on how we understand the world around us because we don’t experience personally 99.9% of what goes on around us – we depend on narratives provided to us by others to experience the world beyond our current point in time and space. If we fail to consider others’ narratives fairly or privilege certain narratives above others for reasons beyond rational ones (like were you there, could you have seen anything, do you speak the same language as the people involved, etc.), we can drastically alter our perception of the world beyond our sphere of influence.
This is exactly what’s happening when we look to lab monkeys as the victims of the war of terror in order to contextualize the ‘real’ experiences of that war. It’s not that monkeys being used to test biological or chemical weapons don’t suffer or feel pain – the issue is how discussing that suffering influences our narrative of what has happened during the war of terror. Indeed, talking about animal testing in warfare can be a really useful perspective, if what we’re talking about is how we weigh the necessity of war versus the cost in loss of life, a calculation in which the war of terror really does not balance the scale at all. Yet here again, this narrative is better served by talking about the tremendous loss of human life, the cost of a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians and twenty thousand Afghani civilians (to put this in better perspective, more than the entire population of Cambridge, Massachusetts or Gainsborough, Florida), and their and their families’ experiences of pain and suffering and loss.
However, these narratives of suffering are not the central focus of how we experience and discuss the war of terror, nor have they ever been. In this way, we can see exactly how powerful silencing victims can be for altering our perception of reality, as lacking a continuous narrative about the human suffering caused by the war of terror, it becomes all too easy to believe that there is none, that the suffering of lab animals is not only a significant outcome, but the most that we can measure or illustrate the pain and suffered we’ve caused. That is not only untrue, but dangerously untrue, as it has allowed generations of Americans to retain the belief that our actions overseas have no negative consequences or no human impact.